Big Data in Education: Key Players in Data Analytics Weigh In

Publishing companies have recently been seen as an entry point for bringing big data into schools.  They have the potential to collect large amounts of data, use it in conjunction with their products, and are large enough to have the resources to analyze the data.

According to Dirk Milbou in his article, “Unlocking the revenue potential behind Big Data for publishers“, publishers can gain a lot from the big data gold rush because they are trusted companies, and trust is necessary when large amounts of data are handed over for analysis.

We talked to two data experts in the educational publishing industry to see how they think big data will play into education.

John Behrens photo: LinkedIn

John Behrens
photo: LinkedIn

John Behrens, Vice President and lead scientist at the Center for Digital Data Analytics, and Adaptive Learning at Pearson, studies new forms of data, new kinds of experiences that generate data, and analytics for data in order to improve instruction and personalization.

“To me, big data is a side effect of the larger thing going on in the world, which is the digital revolution.  Our lives are becoming digital and our interactions naturally produce data.” Behrens said, “You get big data from a lot of little data.  That’s the big data revolution.”

With all of this data now becoming available, Behrens feels it is edtech’s obligation to use it to improve the learning process.  He said new forms of digital tools are creating a lot more data close to our experience and with this new data we can have new insights, see patterns, and support new kinds of decisions.

While some are pushing for big data to be used in K-12 schools, Behrens believes that higher education is where it will start being used because of its access to digital devices.  Higher education is shifting a lot of its processes online, from class registration, homework submission, to writing papers and learning management systems.  This makes it easier to gather data.  In K-12, not many students are using devices for school related purposes.  Yet, Behrens expects this to evolve over time as digital devices become less expensive and more ubiquitous.

For all schools to enjoy the benefit that big data can bring, Behrens identified three hurdles that big data needs to overcome: technology, pedagogy, and social policy/legal issues.

  • Technology – Data is difficult to mine when the technology infrastructure doesn’t exist.  Big data insights require the right kind of systems, Behrens said.  He notes that, as discussed, technology access is a lot more common in higher education.
  • Pedagogy – Behrens said that when there is a large technological transformation of any kind, people conceptualize the new technology with the prior time, “We are just now at a point where we are rethinking the pedagogy and what are the possibilities for digital learning experiences.  Not everyone is comfortable with those shifts.”
  • Legal issues – Legal issues are behind on the quickly changing data technology and there are still some policy issues that need to be worked out, Behrens said.  When companies like Pearson are employed to analyze data at an institution, they don’t always own the data, he says.  Behrens said that the idea of who owns data may be misunderstood by parents or teachers and cause concern within schools.
Neil Khaund photo: LinkedIn

Neil Khaund
photo: LinkedIn

For more challenges that big data faces in education we look to Neil Khaund, Vice President of Corporate Development at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and he serves as a board member for two global service firms.

Khaund believes one of the issues big data faces is the quality of data, “Today the way that data is currently set up within school districts, how it’s currently housed, how it’s currently maintained, and frankly, how it’s currently governed, it’s really difficult to say if the quality is there to even get to use big data.”

Khaund said that data has to be at a certain level of quality before the proper analytics can be used.  “That is one of the first barriers before we even consider how we can leverage big data in the classroom, ” he said.  He believes that we will eventually get to higher quality date due to the lightening speed advancements of technology and with the help of new ventures and startups making big data more accessible.

Although Khaund sees encouraging activity with startups, he explains that their approach is fragmented.  “What I’m not seeing is anyone taking a macro-level view and looking at the entire ecosystem of the school district, ” Khaund said.  He says there will be tremendous advances from the work of startups, but thinks the larger school district perspective is how the different data should be analyzed and brought together to create meaningful data.

Big data needs a big view and big spaces, Khaund said. “With big data the larger the data set the more meaningful the data.  For me it’s difficult to understand how at a classroom-level teachers are going to be able to use big data, but certainly at an administrative level or at a district level, even at a state level,” he said.

As with most advanced technology, Khaund notes that security concerns are real issues that need to be understood and taken seriously.  Data security is one of the bigger anxieties for teachers and parents, but Khaund said that big data can be used safely.  Big data companies can use trend analysis instead of using individual student data and trusted and experienced companies can also help alleviate concerns, he said.

Another outlook that Khaund believes needs to shift in the collective education conscious is the idea that data and analytics are a luxury and not a necessary element of education. “That to me is a cultural barrier that needs to get eradicated before we can consider making those next moves for big data,” Khaund said.  He sees big data as a necessary part of education because of its potential power and the tremendous ways that it can improve learning outcomes on an individual student basis.  “It’d be such a waste not to take advantage of that,” Khaund said.

Big data will be a huge improvement on the statistical data that schools use now, Khaund said.  “Data in education today is used mostly from a reactive perspective,” he said.  He explains that right now we have administrative data, content management related data, and student management related data that educators reactively look back at.  He explains that big data allows us to be more proactive,  “You can do real time analysis to proactively improve student learning outcomes, whether it be for retention or for performance.”

Khaund has been working in different countries such as Asia and Latin America and compares the progress he’s seen abroad versus the United States.  Khaund said the United States has been a hub of innovation for technology education.  The first imprints of data in the education space were imagined in the US, Khaund said, but the state-level institutions in these other countries are very interested in big data and are more open to the possibilities that it brings.  “I do believe that these other countries and other regions of the world will be moving very fast toward big data, and I think it’s going to be important that the United States keep up,” Khaund said.

For more information on big data, check out An Introduction: Big Data

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.